County to follow updated state guidance on gatherings

Signs stating some of the the rules at Solana Beach.
(Bill Wechter/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Covid-19 outbreaks at private residences trail those in restaurants and businesses


Limit gatherings to no more than three households, and keep get-togethers outdoors unless someone needs to use the facilities.

Issued Friday evening, Oct. 9, new “mandatory requirements” for gatherings from the California Department of Public Health attempt to put some guide rails around activities that quietly increased in frequency this summer as weather warmed and stay-at-home orders, for some, grew intolerably stale.

Asked during a midday news conference Monday, Oct. 12, to explain the reasons for the new gatherings rules, Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s secretary of health and human services, said the state’s intent is not necessarily to endorse gatherings but rather to clearly signal how much is too much.

“More than three households, you really are increasing your risk,” Ghaly said.

He added that specifying gathering limits, which modifies a previous order that prohibited such activities, is meant to “tee up” additional modifications to social gathering requirements that will be coming soon. The physician specifically mentioned Halloween, Election Day, Thanksgiving and “winter holidays” as events that will be covered by future rules.

Dr. Wilma Wooten, San Diego’s public health officer, could recommend more-restrictive gathering rules than those the state released, but the executive said late Monday afternoon that she is not inclined to do so.

“This is just trying to put a prescriptive guidance on the process of allowing friends to come over to someone’s home,” Wooten said.

State rules, she noted, still require face coverings and at least 6 feet of social distance between participants. Think, she said, of three different households setting up their own barbecues in three different corners of a backyard.

“When they sit down to eat, they take their coverings off, and when they finish, they put them back on,” Wooten said. “That’s a responsible and reasonable way to try to do this.”

It is clear, though, as Wooten has noted in weekly COVID-19 updates for months now, many are not following any of this advice.

“What we know is that when people gather at other people’s homes there’s 40 people, there’s no social distancing, there’s no facial covering,” Wooten said.

As many running the region’s COVID-19 response have often remarked, it is impossible for any government agency to police every backyard in a region with more than 3 million residents. So, following these new state guidelines comes down to the honor system.

Understanding whether the public is taking gathering rules to heart will come down to watching the local outbreak statistics published daily by the county’s epidemiology department.

The region has recently seen a significant uptick in the number of events that meet the community outbreak definition of three or more positive cases from different households having visited the same location within the same 14-day window.

Monday’s coronavirus report included one additional community outbreak, said to have occurred in a local restaurant with a bar.

According to the most recent overall accounting of community outbreaks provided by San Diego County’s public health department, individual residences have so far been an insignificant part of the overall outbreak picture.

From March 25 through Oct. 6, according to an update delivered on Wednesday, Oct. 7, just 16 of the 342 community outbreaks tallied so far were at private residences. By comparison, businesses have had 104 and restaurants, those with or without a bar, have collectively contributed 106.

Overall Monday, 195 additional coronavirus cases, but zero additional deaths, were announced in San Diego County.

Tuesday, Oct. 13, looked to be an active day on the COVID-19 calendar with Wooten scheduled to deliver an update on the status of the local pandemic, including more information on how the region holds up to new state “health equity” standards. At noon, Ghaly is scheduled to release the state’s latest reopening assessment which will indicate whether each of the state’s 58 counties has risen, fallen or remained the same in California’s four-tiered coronavirus risk rankings.

Moving up or down, which can result in more or less-restrictive operating guidelines for businesses and other organizations, is governed by the number of local cases per 100,000 residents and also the percentage of cases coming back positive.

Recently, San Diego County has struggled the most with delivering a case rate that allows it to move forward and avoid falling back to the lowest tier of the system.

Based on the numbers available from the county Monday morning, the time when the state collects the information used to make the calculations that are released Tuesday, San Diego looks to remain in its current red tier, one better than the lowest level, color-coded purple.

According to county data, the number of cases tallied locally from Sept. 27 through Oct. 3, yields a case rate of 6.8 per 100,00, a number that is just under the limit of 7. That number will likely be further adjusted based on whether the local number of coronavirus tests conducted during the same one-week window was over or under the statewide median, but in the past two weeks’ reports, adjustments have lowered the raw case rate, rather than increasing it.

— Paul Sisson is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune